TORONTO, Canada — As a young girl growing up in an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem in the early 1970s, Orly Carmon could never have imagined the secular reality she’d be living half a century later, half a world away. If she’s left her deeply religious upbringing in Israel far behind, she’s now more involved with Israelis than ever before, albeit at a distance, mostly via Zoom, WhatsApp and Facebook.
Since 2016, the Toronto-based Carmon has been on an international networking mission to link female Israeli professionals with each other wherever they are in the world. As the founder and head of her company, Orca Global Leadership and Networking, she’s attracted over 31,000 Israeli women from her target group to join the organization’s private Facebook group.
To join, one needs to speak Hebrew, be Israeli, and work in business, be an executive or have a professional career. Most members are Jewish but a small minority are Christian and Muslim and while most members are in Israel, about a third reside abroad, in some 50 countries. In addition to the Facebook group, there are three premium clubs ranging in price from $249 to $995 annually.
Since the pandemic began, during which all activities have taken place online, general membership has nearly tripled, and over 2,000 members have purchased Orca services — including club memberships, courses, group trips and conferences — since its inception.
“Orca’s mission is to connect Israeli business and professional women and to help them feel better about themselves,” Carmon told The Times of Israel during a recent interview in her living room in Thornhill, a Toronto suburb home to a large number of Israeli expats. “We’re not really a support group but we help each other to become a better version of ourselves, in business, professionally, in life, in everything. We don’t so much talk about how life is amazing but rather how to overcome challenges, for which we give our members the tools.”
In the interview, Carmon comes off as warm and effervescent, and she strongly encourages members to make connections, follow up directly with each other and establish relationships independent of Orca.
“I can’t tell you how many times women have told me that they became good friends with or developed a business relationship with someone, even in the same city, that they met through Orca,” says Carmon. “This is what makes me happy. In many ways, I believe connecting people like this is my mission in life.”
Orca also offers courses focusing on personal and professional development. Pre-pandemic, there were also organized group trips to Costa Rica, Morocco, Vietnam and Greece that combined sightseeing, networking and educational workshops. Trips and regular in-person conferences in New York, Toronto and Tel Aviv are planned to resume when the global health crisis subsides enough to deem it safe.
A passion for connecting people
Incurably passionate about Orca, Carmon devotes most of her time to it, six or seven days a week. Much of the time she’s on Zoom and WhatsApp, and she can be found writing countless emails when not planning upcoming events. Though she’s one of only two full-time employees at Orca, Carmon says she doesn’t consider the job work, and enjoys having direct contact with as many individual members as possible.
Orca also has eight devoted volunteers scattered around the globe who help on diverse tasks in exchange for perks.
The company’s main focus is helping Israeli women lead more successful, more fulfilling professional lives. To that end, it regularly has guest speakers, which have included former Olympic athlete Neta Rivkin, leadership and positive psychology expert Tal Ben-Shahar and actress Moran Atias.
Overall, about two-thirds of the programming involves work-related subjects while the other third concentrates on personal issues, including relationships, marriages, intimacy and health.
“My goal is telling Israeli women around the world, ‘You’re not alone,’” says Carmon, 52, who’s married to an Israeli with whom she has a 12-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter. “I want each woman when coming to a different country and a new city to feel at home. I want her to feel a sense of belonging because I believe it’s a basic need of every person. Orca gives women wherever they are a feeling they belong to a community, that they’re not alone, a place where they can talk, share and learn. And to women in Israel, I tell them they can do business with all the world.”
Dr. Tamara Tilleman, a scientist and surgeon originally from Tel Aviv who left Israel 17 years ago and now splits her time between Boston and China, discovered Orca five years ago, soon after the Facebook page was launched.
“I enjoyed reading the posts and responses and felt there was a different, supportive and respectful atmosphere in Orca,” says Tilleman, who has paid to join its Business Club and has taken five of Carmon’s courses, including one on business development.
“There are many Facebook groups, many organizations and business clubs. It’s hard to decide where you wish to spend your time and collaborate with others. I fell in love with the concept of Orca because there’s no equivalent hub for Israeli women around the globe, both professional and personal,” she said.
Tilleman says the friends and professional connections she’s met through Orca proved invaluable during her COVID lockdowns in the United States and China when she stayed in constant contact with them online.
“I can say that my life in the last two years has been happier due to the women I’ve met in Orca,” Tilleman said.
A circuitous journey
Carmon’s journey to Orca was a circuitous one, starting with her childhood.
When she was five, after her parents divorced, her mother took Carmon and her three younger siblings from Jerusalem to live in Beersheba, where her grandfather was the chief rabbi. Two years later, they were on the move again, as her mother — then the manager of a school run by the Youth Aliyah organization focused on helping new arrivals to Israel and at-risk youth — was posted to Tel Aviv. A year later, they left for Netivot, them for Netanya. When she was 10, they returned to Jerusalem where she lived until age 15, when her mother sent her to an international religious girls school in Switzerland for two years.
Carmon abandoned her ultra-Orthodox lifestyle when she was 22 while studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
“It was a very slow process,” says Carmon, whose father is a prominent rabbi at Yeshiva University in New York and heads a rabbinical court in Queens, where’s he’s a leader of the local Sephardic community. “It wasn’t like one day I woke up and decided I’m not connected to God. It had nothing to do with God or faith. I still believe in God but I think he’s much more sophisticated than wanting me to use or not use lights on Shabbat. In my view, he doesn’t care about that kind of stuff. While I respect people who are practicing the religion, I look at it differently.”
Carmon’s late mother disagreed with her decision but accepted it.
“My mother was a pretty tolerant person,” says Carmon. “When she saw I had made my mind up about leaving the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] way of life, she told me it’s my life to live but she hoped I’d remember the values I’d been raised on. I still remember all those values and I bring them to other places in my life like Orca. The main one is to always think about others, to ask yourself how you can assist other people in whatever they need.”
Carmon had hoped to study law but her grades weren’t high enough so she majored in international relations at Hebrew University, where she received her BA and MA.
After graduation, Carmon worked in sales at Cellcom, one of Israel’s largest telecommunications companies. Eventually, to fulfill her dream of becoming a lawyer, she spent three years at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (now Reichman University) earning a law degree. She interned in a court, aspiring to become a judge, greatly influenced by her grandfather.
As a child, Carmon often accompanied her grandfather to his work as a judge in a religious court, marveling at his verdicts. Years later, during her internship as a lawyer, she became disillusioned while observing the plea bargain process.
“I saw that being a judge isn’t necessarily about justice,” says Carmon. “It’s about the law and there’s a difference between justice and the law.”
In late 2006, she and her husband moved to Canada after he was offered a position by a Toronto investment company. Carmon studied to become a life coach and began working with clients back in Israel via Skype. On her frequent visits there, she also conducted in-person workshops for employees of large companies. Today, on Zoom, she continues coaching several Israeli clients she’s retained all these years.
In 2014, after a trip to London during which she visited the expatriate Israeli community there, Carmon decided she wanted to develop three initiatives for the large Israeli-Canadian community in Toronto — a women’s conference, a business club, and weekend getaways for Israeli families. In the process, she developed a Facebook group of primarily local Israeli expatriate women.
Then in 2016, she converted that Facebook group into a worldwide community. Her first main event was a two-day women’s empowerment conference in Toronto in November 2016 for which many Israelis (mostly expatriates) traveled to Toronto from afar to attend.
“I realize now that was the turning point,” says Carmon. “The success of that conference inspired me to take my idea for Orca forward. That was when it started to take shape. I remember when the conference ended, I was like, ‘Wow, there was magic in bringing together all those women.’ I wanted to build on that.”
An eye to the future
Carmon’s future plans for Orca include expanding membership, completing a new website, launching a magazine for Israeli women, and reaching out to non-Hebrew speakers with business and executive forums. Carmon says there are plans in the works to expand Orca membership to include non-Israeli women, possibly in 2023.
She also wants to establish local chapters of Orca in North American and European cities with sizable communities of expatriate Israelis. Following that, she wants Israeli women to open and lead local networking groups for business people of both genders.
“While many people know Israel is the startup nation, they don’t know Israel is also a networking nation,” says Carmon. “It’s in our blood. It’s so easy the way we connect with people. We’re very open, which some people call chutzpah because sometimes we’re too open and direct. But Israelis have something that makes it easy for us to do networking. We’re very creative and not fake. If you combine that creativity with the way we look at things, how we connect and our networking skills, there’s no limit to what we can achieve.”
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